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Mitch McConnell’s historic miscalculation

At the conclusion of the January 6 select committee’s summer hearings, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) admonished his fellow Republicans supporting former President Trump, saying, “Oaths matter more than party tribalism or the cheap thrill of scoring political points.”

But one Republican who repeatedly ignored that message during the Trump years is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). After opposing Trump’s conviction following his impeachment by the House in 2021, McConnell took to the Senate floor and attempted to cast aside his not guilty vote by excoriating Trump: “January 6 was a disgrace. American citizens attacked their own government. They used terrorism to try to stop a specific piece of domestic business they did not like. . .  .There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”

McConnell’s words were just that — words. Instead of convicting Trump, which would have forever disqualified him from holding “any Office of honor, Trust, or Profit under the United States,” McConnell let Trump off on a technicality that a former president could not be impeached and convicted. McConnell also gave Trump other off-ramps, including lobbying against a bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol riot.

Today, McConnell says of the Jan. 6 hearings, “It will be interesting to reveal all the participants that are involved,” but then immediately changes the subject to other issues he wants to discuss — inflation, crime, immigration and the Southern border.

After Jan. 6, an “exhilarated” McConnell concluded that Trump was a spent force who had “totally discredited himself.” This was an error of historic proportions. Today, Trump is the country’s most powerful Republican and the odds-on-favorite to be the party’s 2024 presidential nominee. Trump’s imprimatur is a powerhouse in Republican contests. His successes include a Trump acolyte winning the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Maryland over Trump’s Republican nemesis Gov. Larry Hogan; Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) likely defeat at the hands of a Trump-endorsed candidate; and winning Senate nominations for Hershel Walker, J. D. Vance and Mehmet Oz. Sixty percent of Republicans want their party to follow Trump’s leadership, and 55 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable opinion of McConnell — thanks, in part, to Trump’s calling him a “disloyal sleazebag” and an “old, broken down crow.”

Mitch McConnell’s sole focus is power — how to seize it and use it for partisan ends. After the Republican Party’s 2010 landslide victories, McConnell announced that his top priority was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. When a Supreme Court seat became available in February 2016 after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, McConnell kept it in abeyance for a year so Trump could name his successor. And when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September 2020, McConnell rushed the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, giving conservatives a 6-3 supermajority.

While McConnell would like to be remembered for transforming the federal judiciary, his enduring legacy will be the damage he has done to the institutions of government. For example, public approval of the court has fallen to 38 percent. By contrast, the court’s approval numbers in September 2020, just before McConnell’s Supreme Court packing, stood at a healthy 66 percent.

We have learned that Donald Trump’s dereliction of duty and support for overturning the 2020 presidential election represents the worst betrayal of a president’s constitutional oath since James Buchanan allowed the Southern states to secede in 1861. Instead of defending Congress’s institutional prerogatives, McConnell put partisanship above country while cynically hoping that Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021, would ensure his fall from grace.

Instead, Trump’s unprecedented dominance of the Republican Party makes it an ongoing danger to our constitutional republic. As Liz Cheney told a captive audience at the Reagan Library, “We are confronting a domestic threat that we have never faced before. And that is a former president who is threatening to unravel the foundations of our constitutional republic. And he is aided by Republican leaders and elected officials who made themselves willing hostages to this dangerous and irrational man.”

When the history books are written, Donald Trump is likely to hover somewhere in James Buchanan territory. And unlike past Republican senatorial giants, including Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.), who helped Harry Truman win the Cold War; Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), who played a vital role in passing the civil rights legislation of the 1960s; Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), whose incisive Watergate questioning – “What did the President know and when did he know it?” – helped end the Nixon presidency; and Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who was instrumental in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act and food stamp school lunch programs, Mitch McConnell will be remembered as the man who helped destroy the Senate. When McConnell decided in 2021 to absolve Trump, he should have heeded Niccolo Machiavelli’s purported advice, “If you’re going to shoot the king, don’t miss.”

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book, co-authored with Matthew Kerbel, is “American Political Parties: Why They Formed, How They Function, and Where They’re Headed.”

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